Defining Peacekeeping Downward: The U.N. Debacle in Eastern Congo

As the people of Goma fled rebels, they were greeted by the sight of U.N. peacekeepers — fleeing ahead of them

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James Akena / Reuters

A United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers' armoured vehicle drives past Congolese Revolution Army (CRA) rebels patrolling a street in Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), soon after capturing the city from the government army, Nov. 20, 2012.

At 9 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 20, one of the few tanks belonging to the M23 rebels of eastern Congo fired a single round into the international airport on the outskirts of Goma, the second biggest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The townspeople, who looked up to see the first of 1,000 or so guerrillas marching on the city, began walking and running toward the city center, carrying their children and anything else they could. After a short while they were overtaken — by two large trucks packed with foreign soldiers from the U.N. peacekeeping force for Congo, Monusco. Mandated to protect Congo’s civilians, with 19,000 men in uniform and costing $1.4 billion a year, the world’s biggest and most expensive peacekeeping operation was literally leaving its charges in its dust. Later in the day Monusco, far better armed and more numerous than the rebels, simply stood and watched as the M23 — easterners who oppose the central government in Kinshasa — took Goma almost without firing a shot. France called Monusco’s conduct “absurd.” The Congolese were less forgiving. Across the east of the country, angry mobs surrounded U.N. positions, threw stones at aid workers and burned U.N. compounds. Asked what they thought of Monusco, a group of young men standing by the shore of Lake Kivu in Goma cried out in unison: “Useless.” Amani Muchumu, 18, had a message for the peacekeepers. “You could not defend us,” he declared. “You are dismissed.”

(PHOTOS: Congo’s Crisis: Rebels Launch Offensive in Country’s East)

Monusco’s dismal performance this past week caps a wretched 12 years for the force that, by dint of its size and costliness, was meant to fly the flag for all 16 U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world. Since it was set up in November 1999, the then MONUC (renamed Monusco in 2010) has proved extraordinarily inept. Rarely has it engaged the various militias that hold eastern Congo in their murderous sway. Just as awkwardly, bound by the terms of its deployment to support the national government, it has found itself backing not just one of the most corrupt states in the world but also a Congolese army whose generals are among the most industrious of Congo’s thieves and whose rank-and-file boast one of the worst records on human rights, and cowardice, in eastern Congo.

Perhaps worse even than failing to keep or establish peace, Monusco has also failed spectacularly in its most fundamental mission: protecting civilians. In 2005, MONUC expelled 63 of its soldiers for paying refugee children for sex. A separate internal inquiry the same year found that Pakistani peacekeepers sold weapons to militias in exchange for gold. While those incidents may be exceptional, TIME has seen in repeated trips to eastern Congo how, at the first sign of trouble, blue-helmet peacekeepers habitually barricade themselves into their bases, leaving crowds of several thousand refugees who tend to gather outside to fend for themselves.

Now TIME has learned from two NGO sources in eastern Congo about an incident that memorably illustrates Monusco’s callous ineffectiveness. In September the town of Pinga, west of Goma, was taken over by a private militia and protection racket called Mai Mai Cheka (after its commander Colonel Cheka). On capturing the town, Cheka ordered the decapitation of several civilians who were local notables from rival tribes. Then Cheka, wanting to force the peacekeepers to leave their base, resorted to the kind of barbarism he thought no U.N. force could ignore. On his orders, several heads were thrown at the base gates while Cheka shouted: Come out!” Cheka was also said to have paraded as many as seven severed heads on sticks in the town. “Do you think Monusco ventured out of the gate?” asks a senior aid worker with knowledge of the incident. “[They did] nothing. How safe did the population feel after that?” Other humanitarian workers fear a true catastrophe may now be unfolding nearby as a result of Monusco’s weakness. In the town of Masisi, another militia, Raia Mutomboki — originally a self-defense group that now pursues an aggressive campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rwandese — is now attacking for the third time this year, reportedly in alliance with the M23. Though Monusco has a base in the area, it has failed to intervene. (Monusco failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact it to confirm this.)

With that kind of record in Congo, now topped by this week’s shameful conduct, many are asking whether the whole idea of peacekeeping needs rethinking or even scrapping completely, at least as it is currently conceived at the U.N. Among the most confused by what they are meant to be doing, it seems, is Monusco itself. A staffer in Goma told TIME that Monusco was still robotically patrolling the town as if nothing had happened “because that is our mandate. We support the [Congolese army] to fight M23, but it’s not up to us to fight directly with the M23.” The staffer added that Monusco currently felt unable to fight without the Congolese army, seeming to forget that the founding justification for foreign humanitarian intervention is when national forces on the ground are unwilling or unable to take care of their own. Asked whether Monusco was secure in the face of popular anger, the official replied without any apparent irony: “Any misconduct will be met with punishment by the rebels.”

A humanitarian official at an international aid group in Goma says Monusco’s behavior has graduated from incompetent to dangerous. “They’re telling lies,” he says. “We’re told that Monusco is aerial bombing M23 positions, then a few hours later the M23 is in Goma.” Caelin Briggs, an advocate at Refugees International, says: “The current system is, quite simply, not working. Pretending that it is only serves to make the problem worse.” About the only people who approve of Monusco, it seems, are the rebels themselves. “We don’t have a problem with Monusco,” says Lieutenant Vianney Kazarama, M23 spokesman, at a lakeside hotel in Goma. “They’re following their mandate, doing their job and doing it well. We’d be happy to collaborate with Monusco.”

(MORE: Congo’s Eastern Rebels Seize Goma: Will Rwanda Then Take Over?)

For some, Monusco’s ineffectiveness opens up some big questions about all foreign intervention. Congo abounds with examples of how foreign assistance, though well intentioned, can sometimes turn out to be nothing of the kind. The 1994 influx of hundreds of thousands of Hutu génocidaires from Rwanda — the Interahamwe — provided the spark for the near constant war that has raged ever since. That fledgling flame was nursed, however unintentionally, by the international community: while the Interahamwe had been defeated by the forces of the then rebel leader and now Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, over the border in Congo a giant humanitarian aid camp operation gave the génocidaires the space and opportunity they needed to regroup, rearm and refinance. More recently, the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which contained a clause mandating U.S. companies to disclose whether they use minerals from Congo, has often had the opposite effect to that intended. Rather than clean up the trade, U.S. companies simply stopped using Congolese minerals, leaving mines in Congo dependent on the illegal trade.

Monusco’s Goma fiasco is merely the most recent example of the international community’s questionable record in eastern Congo. It’s also only the latest spur to efforts by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda to take back control of their region’s own affairs. This year, leaders of the 11-nation International Conference on the Great Lakes agreed to set up their own regional stabilization force designed to eventually replace Monusco in eastern Congo. And on Wednesday at a meeting in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, Rwanda’s President Kagame, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Congo’s President Joseph Kabila issued what their advisers described as a “breakthrough” statement on the “deteriorating security and humanitarian situation” after Goma’s fall to the rebels. Kagame and Museveni “made it clear that even if there were legitimate grievances by the mutinying group known as the M23, they cannot accept expansion of this war or entertain the idea of overthrowing the legitimate government of the DRC or undermining its authority. Therefore, the M23 rebel group must immediately stop its offensive and pull out of Goma.” For his part, Kabila “made a commitment to look expeditiously into the causes of discontent and address them.” All three also agreed to draw up “a comprehensive and operational plan geared towards lasting peace and stability … as a matter of urgency.”

All of which you might expect to be welcomed by the international community. In fact, those initiatives were met with stony silence. That is due to the dominant opinion inside the U.N., the aid community and Western media that the leaders of Rwanda and Uganda are not well intentioned pursuers of peace. Rather, they are seen as the cause of much of the instability through their alleged backing of the M23 and other militias. The strategy in Kigali and Kampala, say their accusers, is to create chaos, then be called in to make peace, a nefarious plan born of a desire to both improve regional security and establish an economic dominance over eastern Congo’s considerable mineral and metal resources, such as gold, diamonds and coltan. Two groups, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Group of Experts (GOE) on Congo, have collected substantial circumstantial evidence in support of foreign backing for the M23, and it was perhaps no coincidence that as Kagame, Museveni and Kabila met in Kampala, a GOE report once again accusing Rwanda and Uganda of backing the M23 was being leaked in New York City. Rwanda provides “direct military support, facilitation of recruitment, encouragement and facilitation of [Congolese army] desertions, as well as the provision of arms and ammunition, intelligence and political advice,” said the GOE. Meanwhile, Uganda gives the M23 “direct troop reinforcements … weapons deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advice and facilitation of external relations.”

Kagame and Museveni both regularly deny the changes and point out that the U.N. and the aid groups — with tax-free salaries of up to $200,000, and a $75,000 car and $5,000-a-month in rent thrown in — are hardly disinterested parties to the conflict themselves. At its most fundamental level, this is a dispute about sovereignty and whether, in a 21st century multipolar world, bossy Westerners still get to tell Africans what to do. In other African trouble spots such as Mali and Somalia, foreigners are only too happy for Africans to take the lead, and pay the human cost, even if the outside world foots the financial one. In Somalia, another place where U.N. peacekeeping was a failure, that approach has proved a success: AMISOM is steadily taking territory from the Islamist militants of al-Shabab.

The crucial difference between an African intervention force and a U.N. one, it seems — and one that is not only a riposte to Rwanda and Uganda’s accusers but, ultimately, to the whole idea of neutral foreign intervention — is that with nothing personal at stake, the U.N. is often unwilling to do what it takes to win. More than 1,000 Ugandan soldiers have been killed in Somalia since 2007 as part of AMISOM. Since 2000, the far larger MONUC-Monusco have suffered just 47 casualties. In Congo, a Uruguayan platoon officer explains: “I have to make the right decision for everyone concerned. I have a wife and a son back home. My men have families too. I want us to get out there, but it’s not safe.” For the people of Goma, that’s a level of commitment now forever encapsulated by a dusty view of the rear of a fleeing U.N. troop truck.

PHOTOS: Congo Unrest: Clashes with Rebels Spark Refugee Exodus


Here is UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay's statement on M23: ( from The Guardian)

End the impunity of Congo's war criminalsThe soldiers who marched into Goma this week are led by the world's worst violators of human rights. They must be held responsibleNavi PillayThe Guardian, Friday 23 November 2012Last Monday, when the eastern Congolese city of Goma once again fell into the hands of an armed group – this time the M23 movement – I had a clear sense of history repeating itself. The name may have changed, but the play and many of its leading characters remain the same – arguably the most brutal and tragic situation anywhere in the world during the last 20 years.Reports suggest that the fall of Goma has been accompanied by the killing and wounding of scores of civilians – many of them children – during the fighting over the past few days. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled, and many journalists, human rights defenders, and local officials have received death threats from M23 elements.The fall of Goma is the latest episode in a longstanding cycle of conflict centred on the huge mineral wealth and fertile land of this part of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the years, ruthless leaders from within and outside Congo have employed local militias, rebel movements and members of the Congolese army itself, as well as several generations of child soldiers, to gain control of the most lucrative areas. They have consistently used terror, rape and extreme sexual violence as their primary weapons, resulting in untold misery and massive violations of basic human rights for millions.In 2010, my office published a 550-page report that outlined 617 violent incidents in the DRC from 1993 to 2003, each one involving possible gross violations of international human rights or humanitarian law. One of the most notable of the myriad groups committing grave crimes during that decade of constant conflict was the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaire (AFDL), which – among other crimes – violently dismantled refugee camps in the eastern Kivu provinces in October 1996, culminating in several large-scale massacres.The report also notes how, from 1998 to 2003, members of another Goma-based rebel movement, known as the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), also subjected civilians to numerous murderous attacks.A few years later, following the 2006 national elections, many fighters who had fought with these groups started yet another rebel movement, the Congrès Nations pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), which carried out mass killings in 2008 in the villages of Kalonge and Kiwanja under the command of Bosco Ntaganda, who has been indicted by the international criminal court.Today, Ntaganda is still at large, and is one of the M23 movement's top leaders. The group, which includes many other suspected CNDP and RCD war criminals, is led by some of the worst violators of human rights in the world, with appalling track records including responsibility for massacres and involvement in mass rapes. Not surprisingly, since M23 first emerged in April, the UN human rights teams in DRC have documented numerous killings of civilians and other violations, including the forced recruitment of children, which may amount to international crimes.As demonstrated in the UN expert panel report, published on Wednesday, and in earlier UN reports, the M23 and the other groups named above have all received some degree of support from neighbouring countries, including Rwanda, with devastating and widespread consequences for the human rights situation in DRC.External state support to a group led by war criminals is totally unacceptable, and clearly contravenes UN security council resolutions. Given the appalling criminal record of many M23 leaders, alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear, but once again international attention has been tepid.The Congolese army has itself been responsible for many grave human rights violations. Earlier this week, soldiers fleeing Goma took time off to loot the homes of the civilians they were supposed to be protecting. One of the main reasons behind its poor record is the repeated integration, in the lulls after various rebellions, of the leaders of the AFDL, RCD and CNDP rebel movements.Peace will only take root if the leaders of DRC and neighbouring countries jointly decide to make it happen and, in particular, show genuine resolve to end the devastating impunity of serial human rights violators, whether they belong to rebel groups or the Congolese army. In their summit, scheduled for Saturday in Kampala, those heads of state and international parties who support the talks must work jointly to ensure M23 commanders responsible for war crimes find themselves behind bars, not reintegrated once again into the Congolese army, running gold mines, or enjoying the looted spoils of long-suffering Goma.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


@bunuel Thanks. You're right that we concentrated on the UN operation for this piece, simply because, in our judgment, the Monusco's failure is the big issue of this moment. But we've covered the wider story at length elsewhere. You might be interested in our cover story earlier this year on eastern Congo and Rwandan President Paul Kagame --,33009,2124429,00.html -- and the 7-hour q+a with Kagame here:


In January 2013, Rwanda will seat at the UN Security Council as one of its member while the same Rwanda, through M23, has proven the same UN to be useless. In addition Rwanda has its own troops as UN peacekeepers. When a kingdom is divided against itself, it's moving towards its own destruction. Is this the beginning of the end of UN CREDIBILITY?


Jessica, your mission seems to be to eviscerate MONUSCO and UN Peacekeeping,in general. While there is much to criticize, i fear  you have missed the forest for the trees. You completely overlook the UN Group of Experts Report which accuses Rwanda of command and control of the the M23 rebels ( with Uganda lending a helping hand). You also neglect to mention that Rwanda is a client state of the US, and that US UN Ambassador Susan Rice is very close to Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The P-5 of the UN Security Council has suppressed this report, which may be why you have not seen it.Instead, the P-5 has agreed , in a move that defies belief,to make Rwanda a member of the Security Council next year. This is the same Rwanda that has actively worked to sabotage MONUC, MONUSCO and de-stabilize the DRC with US weapons and US training for the past 12 years, after all. You also fail to mention the raison d'etre of MONUC  - namely, the war in the Congo in the 1990S that left c. 5,000,000 dead. This was began with a Rwandan invasion of the DRC, and with the DRC then seeking assistance from Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia to protect her territorial integrity. There is a serious risk of history repeating herself here, and this is the heart of the matter. You should be paying a bit more attention to what the DRC government has been saying. As for MONUSCO- well, one could certainly argue it is now a failure, since it has failed in its mandate to protect civilians. But it has no mandate to fight a foreign annexation of DRC territory, which is what M23 seems to be,

GomaRDCongo 1 Like

Please Jessica, stop this. This is not journalism. You've just rushed to Goma couple of days ago and you do not seem to know anything about peacekeeping mandates (have a look at wikipedia 'chapter 7', at least!!!) nor the situation in the Kivus... At least, please also check what the rents in Goma are!!! 5 000, this is just ridiculously untrue... Agree with previous comments, you are just spreading false info and rumours. Most of your colleagues, even younger, are doing much better than you... Please, for the sake of all people who meed to be properly informed on DRC, go back to sports and tourism...


About time someone called this UN operation for what it truelly is - a massive failure. A 19,000-man operation with not a single accomplishment on its belt apart from concorting unfounded reports against Uganda.

whisky87proof 1 Like

This piece is overly critical of MONUSCO, while at the personal level you have correctly identified the fact that UN personnel have no appetite or desire for a fight. Statements like the UN doesn't have what it takes to "win" are asinine, The UN doesn't have a mandate to "win" they have a mandate to "prevent violence, and protect civilians" which really precludes any party from winning, since the rebels cannot go on the offensive against  the government, and the government cannot take the offensive on the rebels without violence.

SteveZyck 1 Like

What UN or NGO workers are getting $200k per year? Stop spreading bad rumours such as this, which has received a great deal of attention on twitter and social media. A few top NGO or UN workers might get close to that amount, but it's not like they're trying to do a poor job to keep getting good salaries. If they were in the private sector they would be getting a heck of a lot more. Most NGO workers are getting $40-60k. Lastly, why on earth would you cite Kagame and Museveni as your sources on NGO and UN salaries; that's just ignorant griping, which characterizes the tenor of much of this piece.


Just spend the money on mercs. They will likely be more businesslike regarding the whole matter.


Also, another evidence of Kabila's role as Kagame-Museveni third persona can be seen from the fact that while the entire world know that Kagame and Museveni are engineering this tragedy Kabila has no problem having them as mediators. Why does he trust Rwanda and Uganda to continue to host and mediate in this so-called conflict supposedly aiming at ousting him? Because he (Kabila) knows what is going on and he doesn't believe Kagame and Museveni to play the negative role the entire world is seen them playing in this tragedy. Even Kabila's demand the M23 pulls out of Goma before negotiating is just a joke aimed at fooling the public and everyone here in Congo knows that he's going to provide further concessions to calm the situation a little bit before the next escalation, change in name of the Rwandan back rebel group and new theater of war and finally a referendum for auto-determination of the part of the Kivu under Rwandan-rebels control, sometimes in 2015 or 2016.

Wigodeza 1 Like

This article is far ahead among most of comments on the Congolese tragedy. Yet, the authors failed to mention that not only the leaders of Rwanda and Uganda are not well-intentioned pursuers of peace but Kabila is "genetically" one of them. He was put in power by these two forces after they got rid of Laurent-Desire Kabila. Instead of critizing MONUSCO, look at what Kabila's inner circle is doing with Kabila's benediction. They are selling weapons to these so-called rebels and are trafficking in minerals jointly with Rwandan officials. In addition, the M23 originated from the CNDP and RCD. When one looks at alliances during the last year's presidential election, all groups affiliated with Rwanda supported Kabila and have been part of the alliance known here in the DRC as "majorite presidentielle". So, Kabila is definitely part of his Rwandan masters. You can find further evidence of this by looking at Congolese politicians in Kinshasa known to be close to Kagame. They are all close to Kabila as well: from Bisengimana, chief of the police to Amisi Tango or Ruberwa, leader of the RCD. Finally, another evidence of Kabila's role as Kagame-Museveni third persona can be seen from the fact that while the entire world know that Kagame and Museveni are engineering this tragedy Kabila has no problem having them as mediators.


Time for the UN to be disbanded as no longer fit for purpose.. it is common morality to help people in grave danger.  To many times they have simply sat and watched ordinary people pay the ultimate price for thier inactivity. If they left the Congo would anything actually change??